Monday, October 5, 2009

But I want to take the train!

I'm heading off to Madison, Wisconsin tomorrow, which may be one reason that a couple of items about high-speed rail travel caught my eye this morning. Not that I'm going to be taking high-speed trains. I only wish....

I did think about taking a train. When I first came to New York, I used to take the train home to Chicago for Christmas; in fact, it was in the dining car on my first trip home that I first ate plum pudding, now a Christmas-dinner staple in our household. But apart from the cost (which unless you want to spend the night sitting upright, is prohibitive), you can't get there from here. At least not the day I needed to travel.

Actually, make that days. The Lake Shore Limited - which, at 19 hours, is the quick train - only runs three days a week; if you happen to want to arrive in Chicago on one of the other four days, you take the Cardinal, which leaves New York at 6:55 AM and spends 28 leisurely hours wandering down to Washington and as far south as White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, before turning north again towards Cincinnati and (ultimately) Chicago. In Chicago, you hang around for six hours before getting a bus to Madison, finally arriving - after 38 hours of travel - at 8:30 pm.

Given the pathetic state into which we've allowed our once-proud passenger rail system to fall, the best use of it I've ever come across was that of a friend who had a major exam in front of her. She shut herself, and her books, up in a train bedroom, and studied her way from New York to San Francisco and back again. Lots of time, lots of solitude...and lots of scenery.

Of course, the reason we only have three direct trains a week between New York and Chicago is that for years, rail travel in this country has struggled under the myth that it has to be self-supporting. We'll build highways, we'll build airports, but trains? They were a marvel of the 19th-century free enterprise system, and if they can't make it on their own now, well, the world has just passed them by. Tough luck.

In a review in today's Financial Times of Christian Wolmar's Blood, Iron & Gold (which sounds like a book every rail nut should rush out and buy), UK Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis demolishes that fairy tale. From the very beginning, he says, railways benefited from the efforts of enthusiastic supporters like Abraham Lincoln ("a pro-railway lawyer before becoming US president"), who pushed the Pacific Railroad Act through Congress and then gave it "tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in loans, grants and land." Nor was Lincoln unique. Railways around the world benefited from government support, with Tsar Nicholas II, Bismarck, Cecil Rhodes, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao and the Emperor of Japan all playing major roles in Wolmar's book.

It's the same today: the high-speed rail revolution that's swept Japan, Europe and China (if there were a bullet train from New York to Chicago, the trip would take about 3 hours) depends heavily on government support. That's why Britain, which under Thatcher bought into the myth of a self-supporting rail system, is lagging so badly. The Channel Tunnel is all very well, but when you get to Paris, you can keep traveling at high speed. Once you get to Euston Station, though, you're back to dawdling.

But if Britain is dawdling, we in the US are crawling. The train from London to Totnes, in Devon, takes about three hours. The train from Burlington, Vermont to New York City (yes, there is one) , covers roughly the same distance in nine hours. And that's when it's on time.

So what of the high-speed rail funds that the Obama administration squeezed into the stimulus bill? says the stimulus bill's $8 billion barely enough for a good start, and the $4 billion the transportation department might get in its 2010 budget doesn't help matters much. Spain, which wants to put 90% of its population within 30 miles of a high-speed rail system, expects to spend more than $200 billion to do it. A decent system in the US could cost $500 billion - or even more.

Why don't we think it's worth that kind of money? I think one of the reasons is that we have fallen captive to the notion that the aim of business is to give people what they want - and of course, since hardly any of us take trains (because they're not there to take), we don't even think about them, let alone ask for them.

That's foolish even from a free-enterprise perspective. Haven't the greatest fortunes been made by people who created not what consumers already knew they wanted, but products or services they had never thought of wanting because they had never existed?

And where the climate is concerned, as Eric Wilmot points out on GreenerDesign, it's also a recipe for disaster. (He's talking about design, not transportation, but the argument holds good.)

So, since I really do have to get ready for my trip, I'll leave you with his wise words:

The current interpretation of human-centered has expanded to indulge human desires at the expense of other equally critical considerations. This is a dangerous interpretation that has become default for many leading academic and professional creative practices. Don Norman explains the main concern of such unquestioning adoption of human centered approaches: "The focus upon individual people (or groups) might improve things for them at the cost of making it worse for others."

In reality, our human-centeredness has driven us to the brink of unsustainable lifestyle through the strain our over-consumption is putting on our natural resources, and may represent the largest self-inflicted problem a species has ever created for itself short of Easter Island.

Ironically, and perhaps controversially, our current overload of media is in many ways widening the gap between our habits, actions, and understanding of the consequences of our lifestyle choices. A recent study showed that children could identify on average, over a 1000 brand logos, but could identify less than 12 native plants and food types.

The inertia of mass adoption of ever-changing technologies makes it a component of our evolutionary history. Period. But a question we must now ask is, "Where are we going with all of this?"

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. It wss recently pointed out tome that only government can fill certain collective services that we as individuals don't need all the time, but would want to have available on occasion--trains are one example; a hospital bed is another. It is wrong for goverment to use market logic to decide which of these things to support. A good train network, for example, knits a nation together and mitigates the need for environment-threatening automobiles--we should be willing to pay extra (subsidize) for these benefits. The more appropriate question than "can we afford it?" is "what do we want our society to be like?" I'd like my society to have a convenient, reliable, low-emmission public transportation network that I and others can call upon as needed--just as I'd like to ensure that I and others can get medical care when we need it. Nice post.

October 26, 2009 at 10:25 AM  

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